Presidential candidacy reflects hard-fought gains in gender equality so widespread that some women see little urgency in crashing another barrier
Hillary Clinton will make history this week as the first woman to win a major party nomination for U.S. president, a milestone in the fight for equality in postwar America that illustrates the strides made by women since the former first lady was born in 1947.
The irony—and the problem for Mrs. Clinton—is that such progress has become so widespread that some women voters appear indifferent to breaking another glass ceiling. More women graduate from college than men. They are the main breadwinners in four of 10 U.S. households. They run General Motors Co. , PepsiCo Inc. and IBM Corp.
Mrs. Clinton, who was formally picked Tuesday evening as the Democratic Party nominee, has struggled to lock down support from middle-aged white women. And some younger women see little urgency to crash barriers they haven’t encountered.
2016 Election: Polls, Calendar, Money and More
While 52% of registered female voters from both parties support Mrs. Clinton the proportion falls to 36% among white women ages 50 to 64 and 34% among white women ages 35 to 49, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll this month.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is supported by 37% of all women in the poll, 54% of white women ages 50 to 64, and 51% of those women ages 35 to 49.
“What bothers me the most is that there’s not very much excitement about Hillary being the first woman,” said 72-year-old tennis champion and Clinton supporter Billie Jean King, especially not when compared with the enthusiasm of Americans during the campaign to elect Barack Obama as the first black president.
Concerns about Mrs. Clinton include the revelation she used her personal email for government purposes while serving as secretary of state. Mrs. Clinton has said she made a mistake but didn’t break the rules set at the time.
Reservations and resentment also linger from the Clintons’ service in the White House during the 1990s, when her husband, President Bill Clinton, was impeached for lying in the investigation of his affair with a White House intern.
Conservatives part ways with Mrs. Clinton on such issues as abortion rights, and liberals assert she has been too cozy with Wall Street.
“I think we have gotten away from the historic nature of this campaign because Hillary Clinton has become an exceptionally polarizing candidate,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart.
Mrs. Clinton’s highest levels of support among all women registered to vote, including Republicans, are from those ages 65 and older—56%—and 66% for ages 18 to 34. Millennials are among the most liberal voters.
Sherry Lansing in 1981, when she was president of Twentieth Century Fox.
Sherry Lansing in 1981, when she was president of Twentieth Century Fox. Photo: Associated Press
“The younger generation expects that there will be a woman president, expects that they will do any single thing that they want,” said Sherry Lansing, 71 years old, who became the first female president of a movie studio at Twentieth Century Fox in 1980. She is backing Mrs. Clinton.
A mid-2015 list counted 24 female chief executives at Fortune 500 companies, the same number from the prior year, raising concerns of stalled progress.
When Ms. Lansing grew up in Chicago in the 1950s, she said, women were told they had two career choices: teacher or nurse. And those professions were often seen as placeholders until marriage and children. It wasn’t, she said, until Gloria Steinem agitated for equal treatment of women in the 1960s that she saw a different path.
Progress came in fits and starts during Mrs. Clinton’s lifetime. When Hillary Rodham was born in Chicago, eight women served in Congress. No state had a female governor. The president’s cabinet was all male.
Democrat Patricia Schroeder was elected to the House of Representative in 1972, pushing the number of women in Congress to 16 of 535 seats. When she launched her first congressional campaign, a local newspaper published the headline: “Housewife announces for Congress.”
Race to Equality
Milestones in the fight for gender equality in postwar America include progress in higher education, pay, elected office and business.
Women who completed four years of college or more
Women’s earnings as a percentage of men’s
Number of women in state legislatures
Number of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau (education); U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (money); Rutgers University Eagleton Institute of Politics (politics); Catalyst (business)
“There’s nothing wrong with being a housewife,” Ms. Schroeder said in a recent interview. “But I was an attorney.”
Her family bought a house in Virginia after the election, she said, and Ms. Schroeder wasn’t permitted to sign the closing papers because she was of childbearing age. When Ms. Schroeder needed supplies for her office, she couldn’t secure a credit card in her own name.
“You’ve got to be kidding me—I just got elected to Congress,” she said. “We got busy and passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.”
Former U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder in 1976, when she was one of 16 women in Congress.
Former U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder in 1976, when she was one of 16 women in Congress. Photo: Steve Larson/Denver Post/Getty Images
Former Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole entered Harvard Law School in 1962 and was one of 24 women in a class of 550. Mrs. Dole, who later served as a cabinet secretary in two administrations, said a male classmate asked: “What are you doing here? Don’t you realize you’re taking the place of a man who would give his right arm to be in this law school, a man who would use his legal education?”
In 1973, retired tennis champion Bobby Riggs asserted that the men’s game was superior to women’s tennis and challenged Ms. King to a match dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.” She beat him soundly.
When the 2016 presidential field became dominated by Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump, Ms. King said, it reminded her of that match. “Bobby talked, talked, talked, talked, talked,” she said. “He couldn’t get enough attention. Does that remind you of anybody?”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Trump, Hope Hicks, said: “The difference is that Bobby Riggs choked, and Mr. Trump never chokes.”
Billie Jean King watches her return to Bobby Riggs in the so-called Battle of the Sexes match in 1973. She won handily.
Billie Jean King watches her return to Bobby Riggs in the so-called Battle of the Sexes match in 1973. She won handily. Photo: Associated Press
Unease with Mrs. Clinton has colored this historic moment. WSJ/NBC polls over the past 10 years found Americans more enthusiastic about electing a female president. But when respondents were asked their support of Mrs. Clinton in that role, their enthusiasm is dimmed from a decade ago.
“It never occurred to me that a woman couldn’t be president,” said Susan Willes, a 53-year-old undecided Democrat and nurse from Timonium, Md. “I don’t feel like I have to vote for a woman just because she’s a woman.”
Nancy Pelosi, who became the first female House Speaker in 2007, said she expects Mrs. Clinton to win, not because “it’s time” to elect a woman president, but because she is the best choice.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said one of the milestones that helped pave a path for Mrs. Clinton was former U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro’s unsuccessful Democratic run for vice president in 1984. Now, 32 years later, Ms. Goodwin said she was surprised it has taken so long to reach this point.
Sending a woman to the White House, Ms. Goodwin said, “may make a difference in terms of young girls seeing this happen, and then they can picture themselves doing it.”
Former U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro speaking at the 1984 National Democratic Convention as the running mate of former Sen. and Vice President Walter Mondale.
Former U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro speaking at the 1984 National Democratic Convention as the running mate of former Sen. and Vice President Walter Mondale. Photo: Associated Press
Mrs. Clinton has embraced the history-making component of her candidacy after shying away from it during her 2008 campaign. Eight years ago, she and her advisers concentrated on showing she was prepared to be president, making only occasional mentions of the historic nature of her candidacy.
During this campaign, she told voters that if standing up for women’s issues “is playing the women card, then deal me in.”
Mrs. Clinton celebrated clinching the last of the delegates needed to win the nomination at a rally in Brooklyn last month, saying her “campaign is about making sure there are no ceilings, no limits, on any of us.”
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